Theresa McCormick received an urgent call for help out of the blue on June 28, one of the hottest days ever in Hope at 41.4 C.
The call was from a man whom she had helped months earlier. He lived in a motorhome and had been looking for a place to park in the Hope area until September, when he would move back to Cultus Lake. He had put a call out on Facebook, and when she saw it, she called and chatted with him about some possibilities.
He ended up finding a place himself on a residential street in Hope. He must have held onto McCormick’s number, she says, because he reached out to her in the middle of the heat wave.
He needed help again, desperately. He told McCormick the power to his motorhome had gone off days before, after a breaker tripped. The parking space he was renting for $300 a month had inadequate power supply, and he had been suffering through B.C.’s hottest temperatures on record with no air conditioning.
He was in his 70s, and in a crisis, so she rushed to help by attempting to call 911 for a wellness check. She tried for an hour and couldn’t get through, as they were swamped with calls of the same nature all over the Fraser Valley and Lower Mainland.
She went to get him ice, water and Gatorade. By the time she returned to his motorhome, he had died.
It took another hour to get a hold of RCMP. Neighbours came to help stay with the man’s body, she says, and she scooped up his dog and took it to her house.
“I never met him until the day he died,” she says. She isn’t even sure of his full name, which is why identifying details has been omitted from this story.
“He was a very mild-mannered man. Quiet and unassuming,” she says. “He phoned me because he still had my number, and didn’t know anyone in Hope.”
She met with the man’s daughter the following day, and learned that he had several medical issues that would have made living through the hot weather difficult.
The BC Coroners Service has now reported that there were more than 700 sudden deaths that week, which is three times the average number in the province.
Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., has said that conditions were the worst that first responders have ever worked through.
“We’re seeing some of the highest call volumes and calls for ambulances that we’ve ever seen,” Clifford says. The problem has existed for some time, but the widespread heat wave pushed an already broken system past the brink.
“They’re going to have to fix it,” McCormick says. “They have got to prepare better. That was a crisis, and the only thing that matters is that they learn from things, and do things differently.”
She is also sharing the story because she knows her acquaintance isn’t the only elderly or at risk person living in precarious housing. They need to be checked on, and cared for, by the community as a whole. The pandemic and the housing shortage crisis both mean people are living in unsafe situations, she adds. And the elderly are especially at risk.
“Maybe people can look out for older people living in RVs,” she says. “Just to make sure the air conditioning is working and the power is working.”
She wants to see society work harder to care for others.
“I hope we do better, and I hope we look out for each,” she says.
She is happy to have been able to take in his dog, who was also suffering in the heat.
Hope had an emergency cooling centre running for about five hours a day at the Hope Recreation Centre. When the Standard visited the centre on June 28, only one person had checked in that day. Outreach workers were trying to get the word out to the community to come get cooled off safely.
RCMP have confirmed that the Hope detachment responded to two sudden deaths during the hottest two days of the heat wave, but also noted that the number did not indicate a dramatic spike from previous records.
The details of the death McCormick witnessed would be investigated by the BC Coroners Service to determine whether or not the death was heat-related.
RCMP confirmed that they have also responded to a number of wellness checks or specifically related to weather conditions.
“The Hope RCMP extend our condolences to anyone who lost a loved one during this unprecedented time,” they added. “RCMP urge everyone to drink plenty of water, remain in cool shelter and check regularly on loved ones.”
-with files from Katya Slepian, Black Press
Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.